Reflecting on an observation of 2nd and 3rd year life-science students’ definitions of scientific models

This semester, Physics 131 is back to a 75-mintue twice-a-week schedule after some the return to in-person learning necessitated experimentation with 50-minute thrice-a-week versions, and we have confirmed what was stated in Michaelsen et al’s book on Team Based Learning: longer course sessions are vastly superior in this mode. Students have more time to explore more problems without interruption. This was manifest yesterday when I had more time to let students explore the definition of a scientific model, the results of which yielded some interesting insights.

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An Important Paper on Math-As-Language

Redish, Edward F., and Eric Kuo. “Language of Physics, Language of Math: Disciplinary Culture and Dynamic Epistemology.” Science & Education 24, no. 5 (July 1, 2015): 561–90. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-015-9749-7.

I recently finished this paper on the differences in the use of mathematics between physics and mathematics as viewed from a linguistics/semantics standpoint and it was quite informative. Often folks discussing undergraduate curricula (including here at UMass Amherst) speak of the need to simply require physics majors to take more math courses. This paper provides an interesting counter perspective. This paper may also be an interesting addition to P691G.

I also think that this paper, along with several of the references therein that I would like to read, has further reinforced my idea that the prep for 131 should be reconsidered. I really think that it should be, to quote the paper, “without the equations.” I will, of course, keep the mathematical reviews as needed because we will do math but a strong conceptual stance in preparation is the way to go. In class, we can then focus on the translation to mathematics as an explicit skill.

Yesterday, I met with Theresa Austin, of the College of Education’s Language Literacy, and Culture program, and Adena Calden of the Department of Mathematics, about this issue. The goal being to determine what insights from the teaching of English to ESL students could perhaps be employed to teach my students their second language of mathematics. The conversation was productive. In particular, she provided an excellent procedure for the in-class translation exercise:

  1. Let students try to translate the physical concept themselves into mathematical language.
  2. Allow them to collaborate as a team to form a communal definition.
  3. Have each team write their definitions on the whiteboards.
  4. Do a gallery walk activity involving critique and voting for the best one.

For step 4, I will need to think more about how to facilitate constructive criticism. Perhaps Chris Ertl, who has done some neat work on poster sessions for the labs, can provide some good suggestions.

A Quote that I think Applies to the Different Problem Solving Schemas of Novice and Expert Physicists

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”

Shunryu Suzuki

While this quote is meant to encourage folks to keep the sense of open mindedness in the face of advancing knowledge, I think an alternative interpretation works well for physics instruction.

As Chi et al discuss in their work1, novice and expert physics students approach analyzing problems in wildly different ways:

  • Novices tend to focus on the surface features of the problem: ramps, friction, pulleys, ropes, etc. In their “beginner’s mind” these are all simply different types of problems – there are “ramp problems,” “friction problems,” etc.
  • In the “expert’s mind,” however, there are a lot fewer options: all problems begin from a small set of universal principles: Newton’s Laws, Conservation of Energy, etc.

Perhaps this quote can help students cement their knowledge?

Footnotes
  1. Chi, Michelene T. H., Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert Glaser. “Categorization and Representation of Physics Problems by Experts and Novices*.” Cognitive Science 5, no. 2 (April 1, 1981): 121–52. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog0502_2.

Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part III – Added this semester: A problem solving “process”

Another addition this semester was a “problem solving process.” While most physics textbooks include problems solving processes, I have a fundamental disagreement with the philosophical underpinnings implied by these published sequences. Many of these processes implicitly suggest that students should be able to look at a problem and see all the steps before beginning work; that they should be able to “outline a solution” before even beginning the math. In my experience, this is not how physicists solve problems. Frankly, a situation is not really a problem if you know all the steps upon setting out. I want students to learn to sit with the discomfort of not knowing all of the steps at the outset and to develop the confidence needed to figure out problems as they go.

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Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part II – Something that has been evolving for a few semesters: After-class broadcasts

One of the biggest challenges in any course is managing the limited time available. The UMass semester is configured so that there are always 13 Mondays, 13 Tuesdays, 13 Wednesdays, etc. For a course that meets MWF, this schedule means there are 36 class sessions of 50min each. This is a really short amount of time to cover optics, electricity, magnetism, and modern physics as prescribed by the Physics 132 official course description. One way to save a little time each day, while simultaneously making the course more equitable is through the use of daily “broadcasts.” These emails, which I have been sending after each class since the start of the pandemic, contain both a summary of the day’s material and any announcements. After five-semesters of refinement, I feel I have a sense of the key features.

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